Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s party was always going to win Sunday’s parliamentary election. She remains immensely popular, her government sought a fresh mandate with a formidable record of economic growth and social progress and her party, the Awami League, set the agenda for the election and dominated the campaign. Still, the scale of the victory would have taken even her supporters by surprise. The party’s Grand Alliance won 288 of the 299 seats contested, more than the 234 seats it won in 2014 when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party boycotted the poll. This time, the Opposition coalition Jatiya Oikya Front, led by the BNP, secured only seven seats. But there are conflicting claims about the way the election was conducted. As soon as the results were known, Kamal Hossain, the leader of the Opposition coalition, called it a farcical election and demanded that the Election Commission call a fresh poll. More than 40 Opposition candidates pulled out of the race after voting began on Sunday, alleging rigging. However, the Election Monitoring Forum and the SAARC Human Rights Foundation, which includes both local and international observers, said in its preliminary evaluation that the election was “much freer and fairer” than previous ones. In the past, Bangladesh had seen governments declining to hold elections, one being cancelled and called again, and others being delayed amid violence. This time the election was called on time. Participation was higher, with the turnout at 66%, compared to 51% in 2014.
The challenge before Ms. Hasina is daunting. To begin with, she has to heal a country rattled by political divisions and violence. The government and the Election Commission could have held the election without being open to charges that it was manipulated. There was a crackdown on the Opposition in the run-up to polling day. Pro-Opposition websites were taken down, thousands of activists were jailed, and political violence was unleashed to target BNP members. The situation was so grave that even one of the election commissioners said there was no level playing field. The Election Commission should conduct a fair investigation into allegations of rigging to restore faith in the poll process. Ms. Hasina should reach out to the Opposition. Her otherwise impressive record has been marred by her government’s authoritarian character. The victory is a chance for Ms. Hasina to mend her ways, to be more inclusive and run a government that respects the rule of law, the basic rights of citizens and institutional freedom. For India, Ms. Hasina’s victory is good news. New Delhi and Dhaka have deepened economic, security and strategic ties under her leadership. This should continue, no matter what the general election outcome in India in 2019.